MATINICUS, Maine — The quick thinking of an experienced pilot is likely the reason he and three passengers of a small plane are alive after it crash-landed into the ocean Sunday evening, according to the plane’s owner.
“He’s a hell of a guy,” Kevin Waters said of his plane’s pilot, 69-year-old Robert Hoffman. “He’s very accomplished. I feel sad this has to be part of his career, but he did a hell of a job in my opinion. The guy upstairs was looking over those folks.”
It was around 5:30 p.m. Sunday when Hoffman took off from Matinicus and began flying the single-engine five-passenger Cessna 206 toward the mainland. As the plane crept to 200 feet, something went wrong — perhaps an engine malfunction — and the plane’s power went out, according to Waters, who recounted what happened as he understood it.
Hoffman had 15 seconds to figure out what to do.
By turning the plane into the wind, Hoffman was able to tip the plane in a good position for a water landing about 150 meters off the island. It’s called “ditching,” and according to Waters, Hoffman did it by the book.
Once the plane hit the salt water, Hoffman worked quickly to get his three passengers — Eva Murray, 47, of Matinicus, Abagail Read, 56, of Appleton and Karen Ford, 53, of Waterville — out of the airplane through his captain’s window. Within minutes the plane sank to the ocean floor and the survivors were left clinging to a piece of wreckage.
At that point, Waters wasn’t sure what was going on. He hadn’t heard anything from his pilot for 20 minutes, which is against company policy. He thought something must have gone wrong. Then an Air Force official called Waters because the plane’s internal emergency system sent a signal to a military satellite. Now Waters knew something was wrong and he sent out another airplane to find the first. The pilot of the second airplane quickly spotted the four survivors clinging to the “pod,” which is a baggage storage compartment under the plane and the only part that was left floating. The pilot radioed for help and within minutes nearby fishermen Robert Young and Clayton Philbrook raced to the wreck and pulled the four people out of the water.
“The people on Matinicus who assisted were just outstanding,” Waters said. “Everyone came together to help in this situation. Everyone got back to the island and we [took] them off to Rockland with three airplanes.”
By Monday evening, Hoffman was home recuperating, according to Waters. Murray was listed in fair condition and Read was in serious condition at Maine Medical Center in Portland, according to a hospital spokesperson. Ford was in serious condition at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, an official there said Monday.
“All of them are banged up. I don’t say that lightly. Banged up, banged up,” Waters said.
He said he spoke with members of Murray’s and Read’s families, who have for years flown with Penobscot Island Air, Waters’ air taxi company.
He was told that Eva Murray, an author whose recent book, “Well Out to Sea,” is about life on Matinicus, is expected to be released from the hospital on Wednesday. Abagail Read may have internal bleeding, Waters said.
Now the plane sits in about 40 feet of water off the island, according to the Coast Guard. But Waters has been unable to find it. It’s his responsibility to collect the wreckage on the ocean floor.
Coast Guard Lt. Nick Barrow said Monday that his agency will be watching for any pollution that may arise from the wreck. There are no immediate concerns about gas leakage, he said.
The sunken Cessna 206 can hold 86 gallons of gas, but Barrow said no one knows how much gas it had in it.
According to Sebastian Arnsdorf, Coast Guard Station Rockland commanding officer, the people in the plane crash were lucky to get out alive.
“It was a pretty fortunate situation for the four on board: They all survived. In my experience with plane crashes, the survival rate is not so good,” he said.
The Knox County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the crash with the U.S. Coast Guard, Maine Marine Patrol, Maine State Police, Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.
Penobscot Island Air will continue its flights, but there may be fewer this week as federal agencies investigate the crash, Waters said. The air service makes about 12,000 trips a year. In the past 20 years he said he has seen about three crashes similar to this, but none in the water.
“We need to figure out what the issue was to start with,” Waters said. “It’s been a real kick in the butt, but everyone made it.”